Georgia fans wanted a repeat of the moment last year when four players ― Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy ― all announced they would return for their senior seasons. But when Roquan Smith declared for the NFL draft Monday, it was the right decision for him.
Smith released a three-paragraph statement through Georgia, finishing with the news of the day: “As you know this is somewhat of a crossroads for me. I’ve had discussions with coaches and family and a lot of thought and prayer. The decision to leave is not easy but I know it’s the right one.”
Here’s why: Smith is projected to be at least a top-15 draft pick and could be selected in the top 10. As high as expectations were for him before this season, he exceeded all of of them, winning the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, as well as the MVP for the SEC title game and the defensive MVP for the Rose Bowl. He was a finalist for national defensive player of the year awards.
Georgia, which just completed a run to the National Championship Game and lost to Alabama in overtime, would’ve loved to have him back, of course. But the economic realities of the situation were too great.
Smith comes from rural Montezuma, Ga., which sits about 50 miles south of Macon. So imagine the difficulty of choosing between returning for one more college season — where clearly his heart was — or leaving for instant wealth as a top 15 NFL pick. (It should be noted here that Chubb, Michel, Carter and Bellamy were not projected to go nearly as early in the last draft.)
Here’s three examples of contracts near the top of the 2017 NFL Draft.
• No. 5 overall: Wide receiver Corey Davis (Western Michigan): Signed with Tennessee for four years, $25.4 million, including a $16.6 million signing bonus.
• No. 10 overall: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes (Texas Texas): Signed with Kansas City for four years, $16.4 million, incliding a $10.1 million signing bonus.
• No. 15 overall: Safety Malik Hooker (Ohio State): Signed with Indianapolis for four years, $12.6 million, including a $7.3 million signing bonus.
That’s hard to say no to. Theoretically, Smith could’ve returned and taken out an insurance policy to guard against injury. But he wouldn’t be protected if his draft stock dropped next season for any reason other than injury. So we’re talking about the potential loss of millions of dollars.
NFL executives believed with that as a backdrop, Smith turning pro was inevitable. But he clearly was torn by the decision. He thanked his hometown, family, friends and the “Georgia Bulldog family” in his statement.
“I’m so grateful for my teammates who have always supported me every step of the way,” he said. “And no thanks are enough for the coaches and staff who have provided the leadership, inspiration, and tireless hours in helping me develop as a player but also as a man. What we accomplished this year is only the beginning of what’s to come for this program. I’m proud to be a part of the foundation that coach Smart is building on and his leadership and direction are going to bring many more great times and memories to the Bulldog Nation.”
The Dogs climbed to where they did this season in part because of Smith’s rise. They lost him for the same reason.